Learning New Tricks

A long
ago traveling companion became a lifelong—hers, not mine—pen pal of mine and I
looked forward to her annual Christmas notes with the same sort of relish that I
have for those catch-up conversations I share with close friends. Her Christmas
letters didn’t at all resemble the photocopied family newsletters which often flutter
to floors from cards sent out en masse to friends and strangers, alike. Rather
her notes, often squeezed within the confines of the greeting card itself, consisted
of hand scripted prose that first asked after me and my family and then told of
her latest adventure.

Each year
she recounted global travels which beckoned of worlds beyond my reach. It was
as if I had a firsthand correspondent bringing to life the travel pages of newspapers
and magazines which I was reading with longing. Often inviting a grandchild or
two along on her trips, Bea embraced the other countries and cultures she
visited. She seemed gloriously sure that there would always be something new
and wonderful just around the next bend.

Even when
it was only her own city she was exploring, there seemed within her an unquenchable
thirst for knowledge. Into her 90s, Bea took a class at NYU and wrote to me
that any day she learned something new was a good one.

What a
wonderful life philosophy.

Because I
work in a college environment, I have ample opportunity to test the premise.
Although I’ve yet to sit in on a catalogued course, I often read what my
students are reading, watch what they’re watching. I look at professorial
Powerpoints, consider rubric specifications, flesh out and interpret
assignments, follow their progression. I ask a lot of questions; seek out answers
for my students and myself.

But the
real learning often comes in other forms.

Sometimes—being
the digital natives that they are—my students do some unknowing teaching of
their own, guiding me from Facebook to Foursquare, Twitter to Prezi.

In other
ways though, they teach me even more.

They are
twenty-something in the 21st century.

They
serve as a sort of guide to a world to which I’d be privy only as a parent, but
for the access they grant me.

That’s
mostly rewarding –sometimes disappointing.

I wish my
students were less entitled, more impassioned.

I wish
that of the other kids I know, as well.

On the
other hand, they’re happy and funny, honest and resilient. They may not have
passion for the sorts of things their parents and professors deem important,
but many of them are nonetheless passionate. For a boy or a girl, quite often.

But sometimes,
for something more.

On
occasion, I see a flicker, that other spark –of interest. In something beyond
themselves.

I’ve
enjoyed the vicarious ride I get to take with the kids in my life. In the best
of days, I see something good and real. I see the glimmer of a future. Not just
theirs, but ours as a country and a world. I see hope.

Even on
days that disappoint, though, I take something from our encounters. I learn a
little something.

And any day I
learn something new, is a good one.



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Angels in Odd Places

    We got Michael an angel.


    It’s a good thing, too. Because he really needed one.


    They’re not easy to come by, either.


    I’ve been looking for years, to no avail.


    But I think this one is going to stick.


    It doesn’t hurt that Michael’s angel bears a pretty close resemblance to Dennis Franz’s Nathaniel Messinger character from City of Angels.


    Both Michael’s angel and Franz’s do some real-world preaching. I don’t remember Messinger’s message, but Michael’s angel seems hell-bent on teaching him a thing or two about where Michael could go wrong or do right.


    Okay, so maybe the guy’s not an actual angel, but he is that other thing Michael’s been craving: a mentor.


    For all the reasons that adults are reluctant to take on such roles, I’d counter that in spite of its work-to-pay ratio, there are many more reasons to say yes. In fact, maybe because of its pay scale. That is, as long as you don’t measure reward solely in dollars and cents.


    Part of my job description is to be a mentor to my students.


    Seriously.


    It’s actually written down on a to-do list for tutors.


    While I can’t speak fully to my qualifications as such, I certainly know the level of commitment the role can require.
 
    
Because I am fully committed. In ways I don’t have to be. But, at the same time, can’t help but be.


    At its barest minimum, for a kid to have a mentor in his life is a plus; it has to be a good thing to know someone else believes in your success. Not in the way of family and friends or even teachers and coaches. 


    But in another way.


    My students do fairly well, academically. Last semester I cared enough for a nano-second to tabulate the average of their GPAs -3.33- not bad.


    But I don’t really care about their grades. At least, not in the way they think I do. Or maybe not even in a way I’m supposed to. See, I’d opt out of the A in exchange for a sense that they actually cared about a subject, or caught a flicker of contagion curiosity, a spark to learning.


    Sometimes  I give it the ‘ol college try 
(yawn -theirs, not mine) and offer an explanation about why their professors might be saying what they are. I defend an occasional assignment as not “useless” and try to connect it to the real world, even their world.  


    Most often, it falls upon deaf ears, I know.


    Still, I try.
    
    
But away from academia, I try harder still. Because way more than I care about the grades or the subjects or the learning or even that spark I hope to see, I just care about them.


    Even if he didn’t know it, Michael had been on a search for someone like that.


    Someone who gets him. Who thinks he’s a good person. Who sees potential.


    And who’s willing to put in some time and effort on his behalf.


    Because Michael’s mentor is a businessman, I
ve suggested to Michael that he’s being looked upon as an investment. His mentor is willing to commit, but he needs to believe that the end result will be a good one. Certainly, he’s not expecting the same return on his investment as he does in the financial world, but he’ll expect a positive return, nonetheless. And he’ll make a demand or two, expect Michael to hold up his end of the deal.


    When the man stepped away when Michael wasn’t stepping up, I think Michael got the message.


    The mentor is back onboard. And so is Michael.


    Michael has a mentor, not an angel.


    I know this.


    Still, I’ll be on the lookout for wings.


Skittles



    I don’t care what color his skin was. 

    
I can’t get past the rainbow of color in his pocket.




    Rainbow Skittles.




    Because those skittles say more about who he was than the dark hoodie that lent him a temporary tough-guy persona.




    He was just a kid -with candy in his pocket.




    A teenager.




    I know a thing or two about teenage boys.




    I’m often surrounded by them. And most of the time, I actually like them.




    They’re smart and funny, idealistic and passionate, silly and sweet. 
    
    
Unlike girls of their age, the boys are comedy instead of drama, action instead of words. They don’t adhere to a hidden agenda or look for the subtexts in a message. They don’t hold grudges or take offense where none’s intended. They’re much more what-you-see-is-what-you-get than the girls, simpler in a lot of ways.

    
But not in all ways. 

    
While raging hormones can reduce girls to hysteria, similar hormonal havoc can turn boys from mild-mannered to mad-mouthed. Instead of tears and tantrums, there’s a bubbling bravado that can spew forth like lava without provocation.




    And if they’re provoked? Well, they’re easily provoked.




    That’s where it all gets complicated.




    Teenage boys are straddling a thin line between boyhood and manhood, with unsure footing.




    In bodies they don’t yet fit, these straddlers are dealing with some weighty expectations –the world’s, and their own. Many of them are pretty confused, adrift, lonely even when they’re surrounded by friends. Often simmering beneath the surface of who they’re trying to become is a noxious mix of angst and anger. They have control of neither.

    
But for their age and gender, it’s unlikely that Michael has much in common with Trayvon Martin. Michael doesn’t look like Trayvon Martin. 

    He couldn’t be the victim of racial profiling.




    In our tiny town, though, Michael also doesn’t quite look like everyone else. That factor alone doesn’t usually get him in trouble.




    On the other hand, it does garner him a bit of attention.




    Walking down the street one evening, my son was stopped by the cops. It was 8:30. He was in the company of two girls. They were carrying a small yellow bag of Swedish fish.




    Pretty suspicious behavior.




    The cop asked the teens to show them what they had in the bag and they obliged. They didn’t have to; Michael knew this. I wonder if he had been accompanied by teenage boys instead of girls, if he would have been so willing to reveal the contraband.




    Because I’ve seen Michael’s anger. I’ve also seen him keep it in check. Luckily.




    Our teenage boys encounter authority figures –parents, coaches, teachers, principals, police officers-hundreds of times in a week without incident. The kids respect the authority; the adults don’t abuse it. However, in a head-to-head battle between man and teenage boy, it’s up to the adult to keep his head. Because as difficult as it may be for a man to maintain control in the face of an insolent teen, for a teenage boy to keep that same composure may be a taller order than he’s able to handle.

Sigh…..

    Writing short stories as a kid (yes, I was writing even when I was a little kid), I vaguely remember the he-said-she-said dilemma of moving dialogue along in the context of a plot. I’m sure in that way-back-when scenario, I had difficulty coming up with a word to replace the ever-present “said” as character spoke to character.

    While it may sound a simple and easily removed roadblock to writing, the how-to-say-said conundrum is something with which amateur writers truly struggle. Not because there is no better way to say said; rather because there are literally hundreds of replacement words.


He said.

    Or

He shouted, stammered, screamed. She blurted, breathed, bellowed.


She sighed.


Once upon a time, I likely threw in that tiny little word at the close of a sentence with nary a thought.


When I still had no concept of the word, or the potential of its weight.


Driving in the car the other day, I sighed.


I hadn’t realized that I had. Not exactly sure what had triggered it.


But my daughter did not like it. Not one bit.


“Don’t go doing that with me,” she said.


Huh?


Apparently, I do this sighing thing from time-to-time. It doesn’t really bother Alex much. That is, as long as there’s no chance that the sigh of the moment could in any way be connected to her. As long as her brother remains its reliable source, she remains pretty unfazed.

Unfortunately, it was only she and I in the car that day. She came to her own conclusions.


But when did I start to sigh??


I don’t remember my mother sighing.


Then, there’s little chance that Helen would a) take the time to breathe in and out and b) keep anything sigh-provoking to herself.


I should have learned more from mom.


Because there’s nothing particularly satisfying about sighing. It doesn’t compare to the let-out after a lung full capture of fresh air. It is far removed from the breath expelled in the wake of a satisfying cardio workout.


It’s breathing, but barely.


And in my case at least, it is heavily connected to kids.


Who knew that the breathing exercises which served so little function through the horrible childbirth experience with my first baby would be of much more use so long after delivery? Who knew I’d actually need a reminder to breathe, just breathe?


But I do remember, and sometimes audibly so.

What I need also to remember though, as my brain rumbles with its locomotive static of the sigh-inducing detritus of life, is the mantra that everyone with teenagers keeps offering me: this-too-shall-pass, this-too-shall-pass.


Sigh……

 

Ownership




    Shouldering responsibility even when it may not be fully mine to carry (see previous post) may seem a throwback to an earlier and wrong-minded blame-the-victim philosophy. In some ways, maybe it is. The mindset, however, could be a generational thing. My parents, my peers and I have generally held to the belief that we are fully the authors of our own lives. Responsibility, ownership –these are the beacons to which most of us charted our courses.




    It’s an admirable ideal. The flip side of it, though, may be that in addition to accepting our own failings, we sometimes take on the failings of others –especially our offspring. A dangerous habit. Certainly the practice has the potential to be difficult for us, but its cost to our kids may be much more damning.




    Because we’ve allowed it, too many of our children are quick to place blame outside their own sphere. The trajectory may start at home but it follows them out and up into the world. It’s the teacher, the coach, the professor, the boss. Not them.




    This it’s-everyone-else’s-fault mantra sets them on course to an unsustainable climb. Eventually they may find themselves at a precipice without a parachute. And the climb down from such inflated heights can be treacherous, a fall disastrous.




    But it’s our fault.




    Hmmm




    I once opined in a newspaper column that we spend the first years of our children’s lives placing them at the center of the universe and then are shocked when they turn into teenagers and start to agree with the positioning.




    This isn’t to say that our kids aren’t wonderful.




    They are. They have so much to offer. All of them.




    They’re just not all wonderful at everything.




    And when we pretend that they are, and then they fail, it’s pretty easy for them to grab to a life ring of blame; it just has to be the fault of someone else. Because we’ve told them too many times -they’re wonderful.




    The thing is, just like we probably learned a whole lot more from our missteps than from any of our easier accomplishments, our kids would likewise benefit from the occasional reality check. After all, how exactly are they to identify success if they’ve never considered failure?




    My own kids have stumbled on occasion. I’ve had opportunities to step in to soften the blows. A phone call, a small intervention, a push in an alternate direction might have changed the outcome, averted a full-out failure. It was hard to watch my kids hurt, difficult to resist the temptation to intervene. Usually, I did it anyway. It’s too early to tell if it was the right decision.




    Michael will soon to be out of high school. His road has been a much different one than his sister’s. From an outside perspective, it may appear that he’s suffered more failures. But not necessarily. His choices, as misguided as they sometimes appear, have been his own. If he hasn’t exactly excelled at an endeavor, it’s usually entirely of his own choosing. Seriously.




    This isn’t to say that I haven’t seen Michael brush blame from his own shoulders and onto another’s. He’s hardly perfect. On the other hand, he usually acknowledges his shortcomings, owns up to many of his mistakes. 

    
Michael is off on an alternative journey and passionately so. His climb has been a whole lot rockier than those of his peers but he knows every inch of the terrain. And because he’s forged such a unique path, when he does stumble –as he will- he may be better prepared to pick himself up, reassess his direction and continue on.

Freudian Foreshadowing



    They make it to the blog frequently enough so you probably get that I work with college kids (oops, I chastised one just the other day for using that term; I mean adults). And also that I like what I do. And that I like them (most of them, most of the time).

    
What may not be clear, however, is that I haven’t really been working with them all that long. In fact, my first batch of babies (adults) will be leaving this spring. Flying out of the nest, so to speak, off into the great beyond.




    And I have mixed feelings about their noteworthy transition.




    Many of my own friendships are older than these students I tutor, so I get that four years can be but a blimp in a relationship’s foundation. On the other hand, I’ve spent some serious “quality time” with these young adults. They’ve shared much with me. Way more than you’d think. Way more than I ever imagined they would.




    When I recently found out that a student of mine had cut class before she’d had a chance to fess up to me, I asked her if she would have been forthcoming with the info.




    “I tell you everything,” she said.




    And she just might.




    Not in the every-detail-of-every-day sort of tell, but in a kind that matters a whole lot more. She’s been through a lot in these past four years. And the thing is, I’ve been through most of it with her.

    
Now, she’s at the threshold of the other side -where she should be, where she deserves to be.




    She’s arrived with grace and resilience and I’m proud of her and who she is today. I am proud of my other students, as well. They’ve turned from teenagers to adults, and as they graduate, they seem to be truly prepared for the next phase of their lives.




    I’m happy for them.




    I’ll also be sad to see them go.




    Changing the subject (not really).




    I’ve been, on occasion, technically challenged. The combination of an utter lack of knowledge about what it exactly is that runs the computers that run most of our lives and a sometimes senseless sense of speed are  often a poor mix. 

    
Case in point.




    I don’t delete the emails and text messages most normal people might. There’s a history here which I won’t go into. Anyway, among the non-deleted text messages on my cell phone were a few (several) from my students.

    
The messages weren’t left merely to clutter the inbox; they’d been intentionally undeleted.




    And then, in a too quick moment of parsing the list, I said yes when I didn’t mean to and every message was gone.




    Poof!




    I wonder how long they would have remained, had I not make the mistake.




    I don’t know. But now they’re gone –for good.
    
    
And soon too, will be the kids who texted them.




    Because they are ready, perhaps even more than I am, to separate. From their school, from their roommates and college friends -and from me.




Sweet Music



    Alex wasn’t a napper. Although she slept through the night early-on, she was up most all of the day.




    So, to get the occasional daylight break from my very active infant, I needed to be creative. After much new-parent experimentation, I discovered that the most effective trick in my toolbox of sleep techniques was placing Alex in her swing and playing a selection from Phantom of the Opera.

    
If you’re familiar with the musical, there is a beautiful love song that closes the first act. Alex would eventually learn All I Ask of You on piano as a gift to me. Offering protection and the soothing of wide-eyed fears, the piece makes for a beautifully resonate lullaby.

    
All I Ask of You, however, wasn’t the tune to which my daughter settled to sleep. Instead, the one surefire song that sent my baby to slumber was the powerful and loud instrumentation of the overture. To the music of a bellowing organ, a bass-heavy assortment of orchestra brass and woodwinds, a flourishing accompaniment of strings and a powerful selection of percussion that included a loudly vibrating timpani, Alex would nod off.




    A fit to her personality in many ways, but also perhaps a supporting
argument for the unwitting influence of invitro activity.




    Convinced that having babies might put a damper on my frequent theatre treks to New York (big understatement), I had to see Phantom before delivery. Paying a premium for the seats (Alex’s dad still doesn’t know just how much I shelled out for those tickets) and flying to New York when perhaps I shouldn’t have (apparently airlines discourage women from flying too close to their due dates), I made the trip, saw the play, was captivated by the music.

    
And apparently so was my unborn child.

    
Phantom wasn’t the only musical backdrop to her young life, however.




    I love music. I’ve shared that love and the full assortment of my musical library and tastes with my children.




    Soon, they began to return the favor. 

    
First it was the music of their laughter, belly giggles that bubbled from deep in their tiny bodies and spilled over in sparkles from their eyes. Then there were the school-learned ditties they performed in public and private recitals, over and over -and over. Still later, it was the litany of their conversation, a multitude of newly-found syllables and sentences. 

    
But finally, it was their own selection of radio stations and CDs that wrested away my full control of the musical sounds emanating from the stereo and the car radio.




    Being older, Alex held sway with her idolizing younger brother for a bit. Then, he fell under the more musically diverse influences of his older cousin Jonathon.




    A war ensued. And I was left to straddle a demilitarized zone between a battle-of-the-bands conflict as the clash of their tastes played out from side-by-side bedrooms. Their versions of what constituted “good” music were vastly different from one another, and neither of them had a problem with upping the amperage in an effort to drown out the musical competition next door.


 


    Michael emerged the victor. In part, because he is the truer musician, but also in a nod to the diversity of his tastes. The performers who flavor his musical palate are too numerous to list: Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder, Victor Wooten, Dave Matthews, Radiohead, The Beatles, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The list is varied, wide and willingly and continually expanding.

    
Not only does he fill up and often control the IPod dock; he replicates the music of his favorite artists and creates much of his own.

    
He plays -just about everything. And brings in his friends to jam with him.




    Our house has an open floor plan. There isn’t a room from which you can escape the sound of the music.




    But then, I don’t really try.




    With the exception of his occasional drum solos, I embrace the tunes, dance and sing (poorly) along. Because, the thing is, it’s really good music.

    
I’ll admit I miss the melody of giggling babies, questioning toddlers, curious little kids. I miss my son’s voice in meandering conversation. I miss the connection, the words, the interaction.




    But for now, I’ll have to accept their alternative.
 
    
Because even in the dearth of conversation, I still hear traces of who my son is in his music. If I listen closely enough, I hear Michael -in his music.

    
Sweet, sweet music.